Historic Distillery District,
55 Mill Street, Building 48, unit 102
It’s a sad fact that many people who deem themselves to be “chocoholics” have never tasted anything made from good quality chocolate. That’s not meant to sound snobby, but I make the statement to illustrate a point. There are “chocoholics” who get their fix by buying a bar at the corner store and then there are those of us who make special trips, across town or around the world, for the truly spectacular stuff. In terms of the folks who create the confections, you can’t beat the devotion of Cynthia Leung and David Castellan of Soma Chocolates who installed an 80-year old Catalan Melangeur (that’s a chocolate grinder to the rest of us) via forklift, and then built the walls of their shop around it.
That melangeur takes centre stage at their Distillery District shop where patrons can sit on bleacher-type seats and watch the chocolate-making process. Soma was originally housed in a tiny little 600 square foot space in another building in the distillery but as the popularity of the high-end handmade chocolates increased, Leung and Castellan quickly realized that they needed a bigger space in which to work their chocolate magic. Designed by Leung with efficiency in mind, as well as adaptability to accommodate future products, the new shop is a huge room with a small seating area, a spacious shop full of both Soma products and various single-origin chocolate bars, a freezer display of their various flavours of gelato and a wall of windows where customers can watch the entire chocolate-making process from beginning to end.
“I designed the new and old space to showcase all the chocolate making/gelato making areas to be visible,” Leung explains. “The heart of what we do is make chocolate and gelato so I wanted this to show in the design. I also thought it was important that people could get a full on chocolate experience by seeing all the steps it takes to make the final product, it connects it all together. On the flip side it is pretty cool for us making the chocolate to see the reaction of people interacting with the product. It keeps everything whole without a disconnect. We also have a baking area that is not visible due to space planning constraints. I thought it was still important to have its essence part of the experience so I left it open air so the aromas from the baking area carry into the shop.”
Combining Leung’s background in architecture and design and Castellan’s work as an executive pastry chef, the two figured artisan chocolate was a perfect business to get into. Says Leung, “Craving to have our own little slice of something we decided to start searching for ideas for a little business we could call our own. David had just come back from a course in San Francisco on how to make chocolate from scratch and thus the idea of having a little artisan chocolate shop began. At the time there weren’t many chocolate makers in North America (there were a few in Europe) so any pre-planning was left flexible so we could expand naturally with the artisan aspect at the centre of all our decision making.”
Soma has very quickly become known for their creative flavour combinations, employing ingredients one wouldn’t normally associate with chocolate such as aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fleur de sels, or Douglas fir.
“There is quite a bit of mad science going on behind the scenes, and this is from our natural curiosity and love of flavours and foods from all different cultures,” says Leung. “David is Italian and I am Chinese and all our staff and friends have very different backgrounds so we are totally into trying new stuff all the time. Part of starting our own little shop was the sheer joy of having a space equipped for crazy experimentation. I wouldn’t say ideas for new creations just pop into our heads I think because Soma is owner-run experimentation is a reflection of the flavours that David and I are influenced by. Sometimes we eat something when we are travelling that rocks our worlds so much we decide we have to try and make something with this.”
Leung admits that some of the more creative flavours take a while to catch on, but once they do, customers can’t get enough of them. The balsamic vinegar truffle is currently their best seller. Their Mayan hot chocolate, made with dark Venezuelan chocolate brewed with ginger, Madagascar vanilla, orange peel, chili peppers and a secret combo of spices has been a main attraction since the shop first opened and is still one of their most popular items.
Soma buys beans in small amounts from a variety of different sources to accommodate their work with micro-batches. They also try to get as much backstory on the origins of the beans as possible. Most of their beans come from smaller cacao plantations that are family run or are part of a bigger horizontal-trade co-op. For customers interesting in learning more about the various beans, Soma does scheduled chocolate tastings where they go through the chocolate-making process from the cacao bean to the finished product. Participants have the opportunity to taste five to six single origin chocolates from across the globe.
It is perhaps unfair of me to question the commitment of the average chocoholic to the much-revered bean, but after meeting Cynthia and David, and witnessing the dedication and devotion they put into making truly spectacular chocolate products from bean to bar, it becomes apparent that there are people who merely like chocolate and others who truly love it.